At a West Hartford construction site Monday Department of Transportation Commissioner James Redeker said contractors are working on extended hours and using creative techniques to ensure the New Britain-Hartford busway is completed on time and within its budget.
Redeker gave reporters a tour of the construction at what will become the Flatbush Avenue Station—one of 11 planned stations along the 9.4-mile rapid bus transit route, known as CTfastrak. The Flatbush site will see the construction of a raised bridge to eliminate conflict between traditional traffic, the buses, and the rail line the buses will run along.
At the peak of construction, the bridge and station will create about 50 jobs, he said. Redeker said Middlesex Corporation, the company contracted for the project, has been working with the state on ways to make sure the project comes in on time and on budget. The busway is expected to be completed in late 2014.
“The project entails a huge amount of work to be performed in a really short period of time. To accomplish the work, the contractors are working with us on extended hours and being creative in terms of how to deliver this project,” Redeker said.
As an example of creative construction methods, the commissioner pointed to grey sheets sticking out of the ground all around the site. Known as “wick drains,” the sheets pull moisture up out of the wet clay to be evaporated.
“If you think about a wick in a lantern, it pulls up the oil and then burns. Same thing’s happening here, it’s pulling the moisture up and as the moisture comes up it goes out the wicks and evaporates more quickly. So the soil compacts very quickly. If you had to wait for it to normally dry, it would take a lot longer. It’s accelerating our construction schedule,” he said.
The project at the Flatbush site will cost about $17.5 million on its own, Redeker said. The entire busway project will be funded by $455 million in federal funds and $112 million from the state.
“Uniquely, this is a project that’s paid with federal funds, about 80 percent and 20 percent state, but this is a bridge that’s paid for in large measure by highway dollars and has independent utility by grade separating the road for either rail or for CTfastrak,” Redeker said.
The station will also be one of two along the busway that will double as a station along the planned expansion of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail service, according to Michael Sanders, DOT’s transit administrator.
The busway project has become something of a political punching bag for some Republican lawmakers. Sen. Joseph Markley as well as Reps Rob Sampson and Witt Betts have been vocal opponents of the project, which they contend is a waste of money on a mode of transportation no one will use.
The lawmakers have held press conferences in opposition to the project and spoken against it during legislative sessions. More recently they’ve been hosting press conferences for constituents who have been unhappy with the impact of the construction.
Redeker said Monday’s press conference and tour weren’t an effort to get out in front of criticisms. Rather it was part of a pre-planned communication strategy to keep the public aware of the project’s progress and how it might impact them.
For instance, he said the state wanted residents to know that traffic on Flatbush Avenue will be maintained despite the construction, aside from a short period when traffic near the site will be detoured. During working hours, contractors will not be allowed to reduce the number of lanes on nearby New Park Avenue, he said.
“We just want to get out to each of the areas and show what’s happening so people can begin to connect how this is going to work, what it’s going to feel like. It’s the early phases of a communication plan that will get from construction into what the service plan will look like,” he said.
But Redeker does not seem to begrudge opponents of the busway. Connecticut currently does not have a rapid busway system, and many people are unfamiliar with the concept, he said.
“Any time there’s something new that’s not been done before, you need to explain it. Try to understand what is a totally new mode of transportation called bus rapid transit,” he said. “… Creating something new and expecting an outcome, it’s really hard to imagine.”
Though most of the project will be paid for by the federal government, Redeker said he also understands the concerns about spending money on the busway.
“There’s questions about is this the right investment? I think those are legitimate questions. I’m comfortable defending that this is the right investment. We have other needs as well but I think this will be a transformational investment for the region,” he said.
Democratic West Hartford Sen. Beth Bye said with construction underway she felt the time for debating the pitfalls or virtues of the program was over.
“The busway is coming and you can keep screaming about it or you can be part of it and try to make it work well. I’m excited to see the progress,” Bye said.
However, Markley said he couldn’t get on board with Bye’s perspective.
“When you see a mistake being made, there’s never a reason to acquiesce,” he said.
Markley, who’s in the midst of a reelection campaign, said the voters he’s had contact with strongly support his efforts in opposition of the project. It’s one of the most common issues he said he hears about from constituents.
“I hear nothing but ‘Keep fighting,’” he said.